Kerber Friendship Program

Grant Recipient Profile
Kerber Friendship Program: Helping Alberta students flourish during challenging times

With her ZOOM desktop background displaying an image of the City of Lethbridge’s iconic High Level Bridge, the Rev. Canon Erin Phillips says the railway structure is a reminder of her role to “always build bridges and make connections with people.”

After 27 years as ecumenical Chaplain to the University of Lethbridge (UofL) and Lethbridge College, Phillips has built a lot of bridges: between two campuses, between churches—Anglican, Lutheran, United, and Presbyterian—and between community volunteers and students.

Central to the chaplaincy’s bridge-building efforts is the Kerber Friendship Program, named in honour of Yvonne Kerber and the late Dick Kerber, volunteers who helped set the program in motion. “About 7 or 8 years ago someone came to the office concerned about an international student,” recalls Phillips. “They said, ‘We’re afraid she’s going to drop out. She’s lonely, and all she really needs is a family. Can you help?’” Phillips had previously matched isolated students who couldn’t go home for Christmas to volunteers in the community who were willing to share the gift of hospitality, but on an informal basis.

“Yvonne Kerber was a volunteer on campus that day, and I said, ‘So, Yvonne, how do you feel about another grandchild?’ She said, ‘There’s always room for one more!’” The introduction was made and the Kerbers and the student became friends and stayed friends. “The student thrived,” says Phillips, “in part because every week the Kerbers would phone her and make sure she was doing okay and have her over for dinner and games.”

Later, when Phillips was in discussions with faculty members at UofL around mental health services, she pointed to the many other students who lacked family support, or were lonely and isolated, and wondered if it was time to do something intentionally. With a grant, and the commitment of the UofL to work through the problem-solving, the Kerber Friendship Program was born.

“We ran a pilot in 2019 and 2020,” says Phillips, “and it was going great and then COVID hit.” Thankfully, by then there was already an established network of volunteers able to react to the crisis, quickly. “We knew the students who would be most at risk.”

According to Phillips about seventy per cent of international students don’t have cars. “When the buses shut down, these students couldn’t access grocery stores. That’s when we began to deliver food.” The 150 to 200 households supported by the program during those early days of the pandemic included students who wouldn’t normally have needed to access food support. Phillips says many of these students had jobs—some were employed on campus in food services and other departments—but lost their employment due to the lockdown.

During that initial response effort, Phillips recalls one student telling her what reassurance it gave her family back home to know that people in Lethbridge were there to help. “Knowing there were these nice people in the community making sure that every two weeks she had milk and bread and meat meant so much. This was meaningful for me and the volunteers to hear. A lot of people who got into volunteering found it easier to cope with COVID because it gave them more of a sense of purpose.”

Prior to COVID-19, Phillips says volunteers, who come from the community and from Anglican, United, Lutheran, and Presbyterian congregations from across the region, say “they find joy in providing hospitality to students who are so far away from home. It is affirming for volunteers because they have things to offer that they don’t realize are real gifts.”

Kerber Friendship Program volunteers receive cultural sensitivity training and support, especially as they may be engaging people from other religious backgrounds. The orientation process helps volunteers to understand how to navigate the challenges. “It’s about being very clear in your own identity and values and very open to working with anybody else and understanding that no religion is privileged,” says Phillips. “Better to just admit that their way may not be your first language, but you’re trying to be bilingual. In that way you can figure out how to connect.”

After a hopeful summer, with the relaxation of pandemic isolation measures, COVID-19’s fourth wave has hit Alberta hard. “Right now, in spite of the fourth wave, I am optimistic that there will be in-person opportunities for volunteers and students to connect and build relationship this fall.”

And the timing of that connection-making and bridge-building mission is critical. “By Christmas we need to know where to initiate supports so students aren’t falling through the cracks.” Phillips says December and January are the worst months of the year, by far, for students: “It’s cold, it’s dark, they’re stressed, they’re broke, they’re homesick.”

One of the toughest bridges Phillips has been called to build is to help the broader community better understand student poverty, which often leads to isolation. “I don’t think people appreciate the obstacles students face in order to succeed… especially Indigenous students, international students, and students with children.”

Phillips says that “most people still think students are single, 18 to 23 years of age, mom and dad pay their bills, they work full-time in the summer, and might have a part-time job, and they’re done in four years.” According to a recent study on post-secondary poverty in Lethbridge, this is only true for about forty per cent of students.

“The makeup of the other sixty per cent is significantly different,” says Phillips. “They are older, some already have kids, most do not receive family support and will graduate with huge student loan debt.” Those experiencing financial hardship will often consider food and textbooks as negotiable soft expenses that they may have to forego in lieu of the non-negotiable hard expenses such as rent and tuition.

For Phillips, building bridges to students who are struggling is a necessity, not a luxury. “I tell my congregations, ‘This ministry is the commitment we make to helping these students flourish.’ And I remind them that the glory of God is the human being, fully alive.”